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London Bach Society (Choral & Instrumental Ensemble)

Founded: 1946 - London, England

The origins of the London Bach Society (= LBS) go back to the 1930s, when Paul Steinitz became Director of Music at St.Mary's, the parish church of Ashford, Kent. There, with the local choral society, he conducted performances of the Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248), the Matthew Passion (BWV 244) and the B minor Mass (BWV 232). From the start, he insisted on the highest possible standards, using professional musicians where necessary. At the same time his curiosity was aroused as to how the music must have sounded in Bach's day.

It was against this background, in which Bach's music was beginning to emerge from a 19th century patina of Romantic interpretation and sheer neglect, that the young Paul Steinitz's interest in more authentic performance was awakened. But for the war he would probably have founded his own society to put his ideas into effect some years before he did. As it was, the first meeting of the South London Bach Society took place on a November evening in 1946, shortly after Dr Paul Steinitz had become organist of St.Peter's Church, Dulwich Common. The first rehearsal of the choir was on January 7, 1947, in the depths of one of the coldest winters of the century.

There were around 60 singing members, small by the standards of the time for a choir specialising in Bach. The first trust deed stated that the society would study the music of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and his contemporaries and of modern British composers as well as that of its namesake. But it was clear from the outset that Dr Paul Steinitz's long-term goal was the performance of Bach "in its original form".

Smaller choral forces, and an orchestra to scale, allowed the intricacy of Bach's counterpoint to emerge. The use of period instruments such as the viola da gamba and the harpsichord were steps towards the formation of the Baroque orchestra with which we are familiar today.

As well as those who made music, the LBS from the beginning had non-singing members; they were eventually to become known as Friends of the LBS. Over the years they have been an informed and enthusiastic audience at concerts, as well as providing financial and organisational support.

In March 1952, in the Priory Church of St Bartholomew-the-Great in London, where Dr Paul Steinitz had become organist, the society gave what was probably the first performance in England of the St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244) in its entirety and in the original language. Writing over a quarter of a century later, Dr Paul Steinitz recalled that the work was well received, though there was controversy about the German, until recently an enemy tongue. The Matthew Passion (BWV 244) was to become the staple Lenten fare of the LBS for the next 35 years.

In 1958 Dr Paul Steinitz embarked on a project which would later be seen as his "life's work" - the public performance of Bach's extant cantatas, 208 in all. This extraordinary corpus of music, most of it written for the different seasons of the Lutheran Church's year, fell into disfavour shortly after the composer's death, its religious message being alien to the spirit of the Age of Enlightenment, and had remained largely unexplored ever since. It is the LBS's great achievement to have brought these works, over a period of nearly 30 years, to the British public. No one who heard them can forget the excitement of discovering the astonishing fecundity of Bach's imagination in setting sacred texts to music.

The 1960s saw the introduction of more period instruments into LBS performances - the cornet, sackbut, clarino or natural trumpet, Baroque flute. This process culminated in 1968, with the foundation of the Steinitz Bach Players, a group of professional musicians who shared Dr Paul Steinitz's wish for a style of playing (heightening the dance element by a light upbeat and brisk tempi) to complement the sound made by the choir. Among them were Alan Loveday, Michael Laird, Tess Miller, Adam Skeaping and Jennifer Ward Clarke. The group was run as a separate organisation until 1983, when it merged with the amateur choir to form a new charity.

In 1964 the society made its first visit to East Germany, singing in St Thomas's Church, Leipzig and in Halle. Dr Paul Steinitz saw the tour not just in artistic terms but as a political gesture, a reaching out across the Iron Curtain made possible by the universal nature of Bach's genius.

Meanwhile, the performance of contemporary music, stipulated in the society's first trust deed, had not been neglected. In 1956 the choir, under Robert Craft, gave the first performance in this country of Igor Stravinsky's Canticum Sacrum. Works were commissioned from Nicholas Maw, John Tavener, Christopher Brown and Stanley Glasser. That commitment to contemporary music was dropped in the new constitution of 1983, the society having concluded that other groups (e.g. London Sinfonietta) were better equipped to promote such works. However, with the help of the Arts Council, a cantata was commissioned from Christopher Brown, a long-time singing member of the LBS, to mark Dr Paul Steinitz's 75th birthday in 1984.

If the 1960s saw the interest in Baroque performance style quickening, the 1970s witnessed its full flowering. Dr Paul Steinitz was also moving further towards his goal of performing Bach "in its original form". In 1976 he used 24 singers from the LBS choir, accompanied by an orchestra of period instruments, including Baroque oboes, to record three cantatas for BBC Radio 3. These were to set the style for the completion of the cycle that Dr Paul Steinitz had begun in 1958.

Domestic engagements were interspersed with foreign tours, to Israel (1969), the USA (1971 and 1973), Italy (1975) and Bulgaria (1980). A second visit to Leipzig, the highlight of which was a performance of the B minor Mass (BWV 232) in St Thomas's, took place in 1983.

In 1985, the tercentenary of Bach's birth, Dr Paul Steinitz was awarded an OBE for his services to music. The concert was part of the LBS's Bach 300 Festival, a foretaste of what was to happen after Dr Paul Steinitz's death. The cantata cycle was completed in the Queen Elizabeth Hall in December 1987. At the end, Dr Paul Steinitz, acknowledging the applause, raised above his head a picture of the composer, which had hung from the conducting podium during the concert. The gesture epitomised his singular dedication to Bach's music.

Five months later Dr Paul Steinitz was dead. Towards the end of his life his thoughts were running along the following lines: the formation of a consort of professional singers, the use of boys' voices where possible (an idea which he had already tried out with Salisbury Cathedral Choir), the foundation of an annual Bach festival beginning in the autumn of 1988, and an invitation to the Thomanerchor, Bach's old choir, to visit this country.

The LBS's amateur choir was wound up in the summer of 1989, after 42 years of existence, its final performance, of the B Minor Mass (BWV 232) in St Andrew's Holborn, having taken place a month before. The LBS committee had come to the conclusion in the light of modern scholarship, it was no longer artistically tenable, or financially feasible, to have a 60-strong amateur choir performing with an orchestra of period instruments. Just as the Steinitz Bach Players had switched entirely from modern to Baroque instruments in the early 1980s, so it was now time to reduce the choral forces accordingly. It is a tribute to the spirit of the society which Dr Paul Steinitz founded that its singing members wanted to continue making music together and formed a chamber choir, called Canticum, to do so.

Fifty years after the foundation of the LBS, Dr Paul Steinitz's vision has been realised. The choirs used in the festivals are small and professional; the orchestra plays on period instruments; this country's close ties with the Continent are marked by the presence of eminent musicians such as Gustav Leonhardt; the participation of young performers reflects Dr Paul Steinitz's long association with students and his widow's determination to persuade a new generation of Bach's greatness.

Outside the annual festival, Steinitz Bach Players carries out commissioned engagements, the society hires out its chamber organs and allows its valuable collection of Bach orchestral material to be used by others. From day to day Mrs Steinitz is kept busy with enquiries relating to the performances of these works as well as continually planning and preparing for future events. In 2006 the LBS will celebrate its Diamond Jubilee.

The LBS has survived in a competitive artistic and financial climate because it has known how to adapt while staying true to its founder's goals. It is unmoved by musical ideas that are superficially thought out, but always eager to encourage genuine research into the Bach repertoire. Much of his work still needs vigorous promotion. The frontiers must be continually rolled back.


Source: London Bach Society Website (2000)
Contributed by
Aryeh Oron (June 2002)

Paul Steinitz: Short Biography | London Bach Society | Steinitz Bach Players | Recordings of Vocal Works

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The London Bach Society (Official Website)


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